ACC title on line in Duke-UNC II

UNC’s Armando Bacot (left) and Duke’s Kyle Filipowski jump for the opening tip when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils met for the first time this season, in early February. UNC won the first matchup, but the stakes are higher in the rematch with the ACC title at stake. (AP)

North Carolina and Duke have a chance to end the longest drought in the history of their legendary rivalry on Saturday.

Carolina and Duke are now poised to play with a share of the ACC regular season title at stake.

At 15-4, Duke is a game back, playing for a share of a first-place tie. A Duke win would also prevent Carolina (16-3) from having sole claim to the top spot.

That used to be almost as common in a Carolina-Duke game as ESPN hype and complaints about officiating. At the end of 2012 , the Blue Devils and Tar Heels met in Cameron Indoor with twin 13-2 records. UNC won by 18 to win the title. It was the second straight year that the final game determined the ACC regular season champion. That capped a string of four such games in the five. It was the 15th time in the 58 years of ACC play up until that point. Ten times, the two teams entered with identical records. Five times, a game separated them.

It hasn’t happened since. That’s 11 straight years without the ACC sitting down to watch Duke-Carolina to see who gets the regular season trophy. The longest previous drought was the 10 years from 1968 to 1977.

How did we get here?

We didn’t seem headed for these stakes when the teams met for the first time this season. UNC won by nine at the Smith Center to improve to 10-1 in the ACC, while Duke fell to 7-3. The Tar Heels appeared to be the class of the conference, with a stifling defense and an efficient offense.

The Tar Heels, suffered an upset at Georgia Tech in the game leading up to the first Duke game. They went on to lose two of their three post-Blue Devil games, at home to Clemson and at Syracuse. That spurred concerns (among fans on social media anyway) that they had “peaked too early”.

Carolina has quelled that outcry somewhat with a five-game winning streak. The defense, however, still hasn’t fully recovered its midseason form.

Heading into the last weekend of January, UNC had held six of seven opponents to 21% or less from three. Only one of their first 19 opponents had shot 44% from three-point range.

Since then, UNC has struggled to defend the perimeter. Five of 11 opponents have topped 45% from three. Only one has shot 21% or less. As a group, opponents have hit 85 of 238 three-point shots over those games for a .357 success rate.

After holding eight of the first 20 opponents to 0.9 points per possession or less, the Heels have done it just twice in the last 11 games.

Blue Devils rally following loss

Duke, meanwhile, appears to be peaking. The Blue Devils have lost just once since the first UNC game. They’ve gone 8-1 over that span to get back into contention for the regular season crown. Duke has strung together 11 straight games of at least 1.15 points per possession, and they’ve topped 1.20 in six straight. Going into Monday’s win at NC State, the Blue Devils had hit double-digit three pointers in four of the last five games (they hit “only” nine against the Pack), hitting at a .459 clip over that span.

The Blue Devils have also turned it up on defense. After holding 10 of their first 21 opponents to less than 1.00 points per possession, the Blue Devils have done it six times in the last nine outings. Duke has also shut down the perimeter, allowing the last eight opponents prior to State to shoot just .266 from three.

Star Power

North Carolina guard RJ Davis, bottom, drives against Duke guard Jared McCain, top, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

The game will feature the likely major award winners in the ACC. RJ Davis, who scored 42 points against Miami last week, is the frontrunner to win Player of the Year. He leads the league in scoring by a nearly 3 ppg margin. On the other side, Jared McCain, who scored 35 against Florida State last month, is the likely Rookie of the Year. His 23-point outing against UNC in the first game began McCain’s coming-out party. He’s hiked his scoring average by more than 3 ppg since then and lifted his 3-point shooting percentage by two dozen points.

McCain has helped Duke overcome the loss of fellow freshman Caleb Foster, who appears out for the foreseeable future with an unspecified injury. The development of freshman Sean Stewart, who has seen his production and playing time increase in recent games, should help Duke overcome Foster’s absence from a depth standpoint.

The momentum appears to be on Duke’s side, but the Blue Devils still need to catch UNC as the regular season hits the finish line.

The stakes haven’t been this high in a dozen years.